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  • Eyes on Trade is a blog by the staff of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch (GTW) division. GTW aims to promote democracy by challenging corporate globalization, arguing that the current globalization model is neither a random inevitability nor "free trade." Eyes on Trade is a space for interested parties to share information about globalization and trade issues, and in particular for us to share our watchdogging insights with you! GTW director Lori Wallach's initial post explains it all.

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November 25, 2013

Salt Lake TPP Talks End with Growing Pressure to Announce “Deal” at December TPP Ministerial, but No Resolution of Major Controversies

Update from Lori Wallach, Director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch

A week of intense TPP negotiations, marked with increasingly heavy-handed U.S. tactics, came to an end late Sunday night in Salt Lake City, Utah. Negotiators working on the 12 TPP chapters not yet completed were instructed to narrow disagreements to matters that the chief negotiators or trade ministers will decide. At least three chapters – those covering intellectual property, state owned enterprises and medicine-pricing formularies – did not reach this target. Talks on the controversial intellectual property chapter were extended and will continue for at least two more days.  There was no discussion of disciplines to counter currency manipulation despite 230 House and 60 Senate GOP and Democrats demanding such terms.

In Salt Lake City, TPP chief negotiators prepared a long list of final trade-offs and decisions for trade ministers who will meet from December 7-10 in Singapore. Many TPP country governments are billing the Singapore Ministerial as the ‘end game’ of negotiations. The intensity of efforts at Salt Lake City demonstrated that the United States is desperate that its latest end-of-year deadline for TPP’s completion not be missed like three past deadlines.

Claims that a final TPP deal is close seem incredible, given that it appears that the most  politically sensitive issues that have arisen in three years of talks remains unresolved.  Controversy is growing in many TPP nations about demanded trade-offs relating to medicine prices, Internet freedom, financial regulation and other sensitive non-trade matters. Plus, Congress’s bottom lines - from disciplines against currency cheating and subsidies on state owned enterprises to enforceable labor and environmental standards - remain unachieved.

The tone and intensity of these latest talks was different than previous rounds, however. U.S. officials started to roll back from some long-held positions, perhaps because the administration knows it is in a race against time.  Opposition in Congress and in various TPP countries is growing as more details leak about TPP’s terms. 

The apparent goal for trade ministers meeting in Singapore is to make broad trade-offs on market access and the most controversial policy issues that have been deadlocked and agree on “landing zones” for what they want in a final deal.  By withholding any actual agreement text  from the public and press, they hope to announce these arrangements as a “final” deal so that there is wide press coverage that creates a sense of inevitability while negotiations continue.

 

Inconvenient Questions As Governments Push for a TPP “Deal” in Singapore: 

Negotiations on sensitive Market Access issues

-       How will the U.S. even negotiate market access terms on autos, agriculture and other sensitive issues with Japan without having sealed its bilateral agreement with Japan that it says is a condition for the country being included in a final TPP? 

-       A supermajority in the U.S. Congress has said TPP must include currency disciplines, but the issue has apparently not even been raised to date. What is the plan? 

-       Japan’s parliament has listed five “sacred” commodities – rice, beef and pork, wheat and barley, sugar and dairy - that it demands be excluded from TPP rules zeroing out tariffs. Will the U.S. reverse its insistence that all sectors be liberalized?  

-       The rules of origin have not been agreed for sensitive sectors such as apparel/textiles, autos and more, so how can final deals be reached on tariff-cutting? 

-       If the U.S. provides new market access on dairy and sugar, will it be commercially significant or only small tariff-rate quotas designed to be used by demandeur countries as political optics to “show” gains?

Deadlock over enforceability of labor and environment chapter

-       Because it is a congressional red line, the U.S. has insisted on labor and environmental standards that are enforceable on equal terms with the pact’s other provisions. Most TPP countries oppose enforceable labor and environmental standards altogether.  How will this be resolved?

-       Further, additional issues in the environment chapter remain unresolved. Any rollback from past U.S. FTAs could doom TPP in Congress, so what is the status?

Deadlock over the State Owned Enterprises (SOE) text

-       There still is not agreed text for this chapter, but did the countries finally agree on a definition of what is a state owned enterprise?

-       Given that discussions of actual text have only just begun, how can Ministers make high-level decisions on this chapter in Singapore in 12 days?

-       The U.S. demands disciplines on SOEs that forbid the use of government resources to subsidize SOE activities within TPP nations. A sizable bloc of nations opposes this. A bipartisan supermajority in the U.S. Congress has indicated that it will oppose TPP unless it includes the U.S. version of rules, so how will Ministers handle this issue given other TPP countries have numerous SOEs?

IP chapter patent rules and medicine pricing rules both deadlocked

-       The U.S. proposal that would deliver on Big Pharma’s demands for extended patents, data exclusivity and other monopoly powers that raise medicine prices continues to face opposition by most other TPP countries. What is the plan to resolve this after four years of deadlock? Is the U.S. giving up on Big Pharma’s demands or did other countries trade away their medicine pricing policies?

-       In another chapter, an Annex cynically dubbed “Annex on Transparency and Procedural Fairness for Healthcare Technologies,” would allow drug firms to challenge medicine formulary reimbursement and pricing decisions. Did the U.S. finally give up on this or did other countries agree to allow Big Pharma to challenge the decisions of doctors and pharmacologists who determine what medicines will be included on the formularies of countries’ healthcare systems?

Impasse on Copyright Rules

-       Hollywood and recording industry-inspired proposals to limit internet freedom and access to educational materials, to force internet providers to act as copyright cops, and to cut off peoples’ internet access have triggered public outrage and led to deadlocks on key TPP provisions. Are these issues suddenly on a path to resolution? How?

-        Also there has been entrenched disagreement about whether copyright should be able to keep works of art and literature out of the public domain 70 years after death of the author, Was this resolved, and, if so, how, given it would require rewrites of most TPP nations domestic laws?

United opposition to the U.S. demand that TPP ban the use of capital controls

-       With the IMF now endorsing the us of capital controls as ways  to avoid floods of speculative capital that cause financial crises, it is not surprising that there is united opposition to the unbending U.S. demand that TPP include a ban on countries’ use of various common-sense macro-prudential measures, including capital controls and financial transaction taxes. How will this be resolved?

Deadlocks over aspects of controversial “investor-state” private corporate enforcement of TPP

-       Australia’s new conservative government has reiterated that it will not be bound to the investor-state enforcement system, which elevates individual corporations to equal status with sovereign nations in order to enforce privately a public treaty by demanding compensation from governments before panels of private-sector attorneys for government actions that undermine expected future profits. This is long-established Australian policy. Also, Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party parliamentary majority has set as a condition for Japan’s TPP participation that the deal not include investor-state enforcement. The U.S. insists all countries be bound. Now what?

-        Other TPP nations oppose the U.S. demand that government natural resource concession, private-public-partnership utility management contracts and procurement contracts be subject to such extra-judicial processes. How will this and a set of other deadlocked issues be suddenly resolved in Singapore after disagreements for the last four years?”

November 15, 2013

Falling Exports under Korea FTA Likely to Bolster Fast Track Opposition

This week's government release of trade data highlights a stunning decline in U.S. exports to Korea, a rise in imports, and a ballooning of the U.S. trade deficit under the Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA).  With such sorry results emerging from the Korea deal, it's little wonder that 178 Democrats and Republicans this week rejected Obama's bid to Fast Track through Congress another FTA -- the sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  

U.S. goods exports to Korea fell 8 percent and imports from Korea grew 8 percent under the first 18 months of the Korea deal, relative to the 18 months before the deal took effect. The shift provoked an incredible 56 percent growth in the U.S. trade deficit with Korea in the FTA’s first year and a half.

The Korea FTA’s abysmal record for U.S. jobs has been consistent: in 18 out of the 18 months since the deal took effect, U.S. exports to Korea have fallen below the average level seen in the year before the deal.  And in every single one of the 18 months since the FTA, the U.S. deficit with Korea has exceeded the average monthly deficit before the deal took effect (see graphs below). These losses amount to tens of thousands of lost U.S. jobs.

The disappointing data from the Korea FTA, a template for the TPP, is poised to generate even more congressional opposition to Obama’s request for Fast Track’s extraordinary authority to railroad the TPP through Congress on an expedited timeline with limited debate and no amendments.

Korea Exports Nov 2

Korea Deficit Nov 2

November 13, 2013

151 House Democrats, Bloc of GOP Announce Opposition to ‘Fast Track’ Trade Authority

Mounting Concerns About Possible Trans-Pacific Partnership Unite Members Across Party Lines Against Abdicating Congressional Authority Over Trade 

A letter sent today to President Barack Obama opposing Fast Track authority, signed by 151 House Democrats, signals the end of a controversial Nixon-era procedure used to railroad contentious trade pacts through Congress. Obama has asked Congress to delegate to him its constitutional trade authority via Fast Track for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other pacts.

The signers of the letter show the breadth and depth of Democratic House opposition to Fast Track. Signers include:

  • 18 of 21 full committee ranking members and 72 subcommittee ranking members;
  • Leadership members including Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn; Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Steve Israel; Steering and Policy Committee Co-Chairs Rosa DeLauro and Rob Andrews; and 35 of 48 Democratic Steering and Policy Committee members;
  • 19 of the short list of Democrats who voted for the 2011 U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement;
  • 26 of the 51 members of the New Democrat Coalition, and 8 of the 14 members of the Blue Dog Coalition; and
  • 36 of 42 House members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and 13 of 19 House members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus

On Tuesday, 25 House Republicans members announced their opposition to Fast Track, and most Democratic Ways and Means Committee members joined a letter noting that the old Fast Track process enjoys little support. Even prominent supporters of past trade agreements who did not sign these letters recently have voiced their opposition to Fast Track.

“These letters make clear that Fast Track is history,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “When Nixon cooked up this scheme 40 years ago, trade pacts covered only tariffs. Now, deals like the TPP could rewrite wide swaths of U.S. policy, currently under the control of Congress, from food safety and financial regulation to Buy American procurement to energy policy.”

Fast Track delegated to the executive branch authorities the Constitution explicitly gives Congress. Fast Track let the executive branch unilaterally select trade partners, set agreements’ terms and sign them before Congress even voted. Then the executive branch could write implementing legislation, skirting committee review and amendment. This legislation could be directly submitted for votes, with congressional leaders’ control of House and Senate floor schedules overridden. Votes could be forced within 60 days in the House and an additional 30 days in the Senate. Normal voting rules were waived, with all amendments banned and only 20 hours of debate. Unlike all past trade authorities, which covered only tariffs, Fast Track allowed the executive branch to “diplomatically legislate,” using trade agreements to set policy on non-trade matters.

“Polls show that opposition to more-of-the same trade deals is one of the few issues that uniteAmericans across party lines,” said Wallach. “It’s not really surprising that there is bipartisan congressional opposition to Fast Track.” 

Fast Track has been used only 16 times, although hundreds of U.S. trade agreements have been implemented since the mid-1970s. These have included the most controversial pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the agreement that created the World Trade Organization (WTO). The U.S. has a large and growing trade deficit with countries involved in past U.S. fast-tracked Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). U.S. export growth is 38 percent higher with countries with which we do not have FTAs relative to those with which we have FTAs.

Also fueling congressional opposition to Fast Track is the abysmal outcome of the Obama administration’s only major trade pact to date, the U.S.-Korea FTA, which is the template for the TPP.  In contrast to Obama’s promises that the Korea deal would boost exports, in the agreement’s first year, U.S. exports to Korea fell 10 percent, imports from Korea rose and the U.S. trade deficit with Korea exploded by 37 percent. This equates to a net loss of approximately 40,000 U.S. jobs.

Opposition to Fast Track has been growing in Congress since the time of NAFTA and the WTO. The 1991 Fast Track grant passed in the House by a 27-vote margin. President Bill Clinton never was able to obtain Fast Track again after that grant expired. Clinton had Fast Track authority for only two of his eight years in office, and in 1998, the House explicitly rejected his request, with 171 Democratic and 71 GOP opposing Fast Track. President George W. Bush then spent two years and enormous political capital to pass Fast Track in 2002 by two votes. That delegation of Fast Track expired in 2007, and Congress rebuffed Bush’s request for an extension.

In 2008, candidate Obama promised to replace Fast Track with a more inclusive process. Historically, a new system of trade authority delegation has been created every few decades since 1890. But in recent months, Obama has ramped up his demand that Congress once again cede its constitutional trade authority via Fast Track.

“Fast Track is outdated 1970s technology being applied to 21st century realities, which is causing serious damage,” said Wallach. “It enables agreements that offshore U.S. jobs and expose our consumer and environmental laws to attack and rollback.”

Already a decade ago, one of Congress’ most ardent free traders, the late U.S. Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.), who led the Democratic House effort to pass NAFTA, described why Fast Track was unacceptable:

“Trade is no longer primarily about tariffs and quotas. It’s about changing domestic laws. The constitutional authority to make law is at the heart of our role as a Congress and of our sovereignty as a nation. When international trade negotiators sit down to hammer out agreements, they are talking about harmonizing ‘non-tariff barriers to trade’ that may include everything from antitrust laws to food safety. I believe the President and the USTR should be able to negotiate trade deals as efficiently as possible … But that does not mean that Congress must concede to the Executive Branch its constitutional authority over foreign commerce and domestic law without adequate assurances that Congress will be an active participant in the process. Congress should be a partner, not a mere spectator or occasional consultant to the process. … Think about what may be bargained away at the negotiating table: our own domestic environmental protections ... food safety laws ... competition policies. That’s the air we breathe, the food our children eat, and the way Americans do business… The nature of trade has changed, and Fast Track authority must change with it. I ardently believe in the principles of free trade. But I will not put my constitutional authority over domestic law and my responsibility to my own constituents on a fast track to the executive branch.” (Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.), Congressional Record, 147, 12/6/01, at H9025.

Prior to Fast Track and starting with Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, Congress gave Tariff Proclamation Authority to presidents. But it covered only tariffs, not the broad subject matter included under Fast Track. The mechanism allowed the executive branch to implement reciprocal tariff cuts only within bounds set by Congress. Prior to that, trade agreements were often approved as treaties by the Senate, with both chambers later also required to pass implementing legislation. Public Citizen’s 2013 book, “The Rise and Fall of Fast Track Trade Authority, provides an in-depth history of U.S. trade authority.  

Leaked Documents Reveal Obama Administration Push for Internet Freedom Limits, Terms That Raise Drug Prices in Closed-Door 'Trade' Talks

U.S. Demands in Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement Text, Published Today by WikiLeaks, Contradict Obama Policy and Public Opinion at Home and Abroad

Secret documents published today by WikiLeaks and analyzed by Public Citizen reveal that the Obama administration is demanding terms that would limit Internet freedom and access to lifesaving medicines throughout the Asia-Pacific region and bind Americans to the same bad rules, belying the administration’s stated commitments to reduce health care costs and advance free expression online, Public Citizen said today.

WikiLeaks published the complete draft of the Intellectual Property chapter for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed international commercial pact between the United States and 11 Asian and Latin American countries. Although talks started in 2008, this is the first access the public and press have had to this text. The text identifies which countries support which terms. The administration has refused to make draft TPP text public, despite announcing intentions to sign the deal by year’s end. Signatory nations’ laws would be required to conform to TPP terms.

The leak shows the United States seeking to impose the most extreme demands of Big Pharma and Hollywood, Public Citizen said, despite the express and frequently universal opposition of U.S. trade partners. Concerns raised by TPP negotiating partners and many civic groups worldwide regarding TPP undermining access to affordable medicines, the Internet and even textbooks have resulted in a deadlock over the TPP Intellectual Property Chapter, leading to an impasse in the TPP talks, Public Citizen said.

“The Obama administration’s proposals are the worst – the most damaging for health – we have seen in a U.S. trade agreement to date. The Obama administration has backtracked from even the modest health considerations adopted under the Bush administration,” said Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s global access to medicines program. “The Obama administration’s shameful bullying on behalf of the giant drug companies would lead to preventable suffering and death in Asia-Pacific countries. And soon the administration is expected to propose additional TPP terms that would lock Americans into high prices for cancer drugs for years to come.”

Previously, some elements of U.S. proposals for the Intellectual Property Chapter of the TPP had been leaked in 2011 and 2012. This leak is the first of a complete chapter revealing all countries’ positions. There are more than 100 unresolved issues in the TPP Intellectual Property chapter. Even the wording of many footnotes is in dispute; one footnote negotiators agree on suggests they keep working out their differences over the wording of the other footnotes. The other 28 draft TPP chapters remain shrouded in secrecy.

Last week, the AARP and major consumer groups wrote to the Obama administration to express their “deep concern” that U.S. proposals for the TPP would “limit the ability of states and the federal government to moderate escalating prescription drug, biologic drug and medical device costs in public programs,” and contradict cost-cutting plans for biotech medicines in the White House budget.

Other U.S.-demanded measures for the TPP would empower the tobacco giants to sue governments before foreign tribunals to demand taxpayer compensation for their health regulations and have been widely criticized. “This supposed trade negotiation has devolved into a secretive rulemaking against public health, on behalf of Big Pharma and Big Tobacco,” said Maybarduk.

“It is clear from the text obtained by WikiLeaks that the U.S. government is isolated and has lost this debate,” Maybarduk said. “Our partners don’t want to trade away their people’s health. Americans don’t want these measures either. Nevertheless, the Obama administration – on behalf of Big Pharma and big movie studios – now is trying to accomplish through pressure what it could not through persuasion.”

“The WikiLeaks text also features Hollywood and recording industry-inspired proposals – think about the SOPA debacle – to limit Internet freedom and access to educational materials, to force Internet providers to act as copyright enforcers and to cut off people’s Internet access,” said Burcu Kilic, an intellectual property lawyer with Public Citizen. “These proposals are deeply unpopular worldwide and have led to a negotiation stalemate.”

“Given how much text remains disputed, the negotiation will be very difficult to conclude,” said Maybarduk. “Much more forward-looking proposals have been advanced by the other parties, but unless the U.S drops its out-there-alone demands, there may be no deal at all.”

“We understand that the only consideration the Obama administration plans to propose for access to affordable generic medicines is a very weak form of differential treatment for developing countries,” said Maybarduk.

The text obtained by WikiLeaks is available at wikileaks.org/tpp. Analysis of the leaked text is available at www.citizen.org/access.

More information about the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations is available at www.citizen.org/tpp.

November 08, 2013

38 Million Retirees Join Workers and Consumers to Say No to "Trade" Deal Terms that Would Make Medicine More Expensive

The chorus of critics of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a sweeping U.S. pact under negotiation with 11 Pacific Rim countries – keeps expanding.  

Today the largest U.S. nonprofit, nonpartisan group – the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), representing 38 million members – joined the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Consumers Union and other U.S. health and consumer advocacy groups in sending a letter to President Obama to express "deep concern" that TPP rules will thwart efforts to control escalating healthcare costs.  

The groups outline an array of U.S. policies and proposals to make healthcare more affordable that are jeopardized by TPP provisions "being advanced by the United States Trade Representative." These threatened cost-saving measures include Medicare prescription drug discounts under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), an administration proposal slated to save $134 billion by providing rebates to low-income Medicare beneficiaries, and state-level Medicaid policies used to control drug costs.  

The groups also state their opposition to Big Pharma's agressive push for U.S. trade officials to grant pharmaceutical corporations special monopoly rights in the TPP for biologic drugs, which are some of the costliest on the market. In another letter late last month, AARP warned that this TPP proposal alone could cost Americans billions in additional health expenditures annually and undermine the Obama administration’s efforts to ensure more affordable healthcare.

Biologic medicines – the latest generation of drugs to combat cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis, among other diseases – are exceptionally expensive, even for those with comprehensive insurance coverage. Derived from living organisms, these treatments cost approximately 22 times more than conventional medicines. According to AARP, patients can face annual treatment costs of $400,000.

While the Obama administration pushes for measures at home to contain rising health care costs, Big Pharma is urging the administration to include measures in the TPP that would increase costs by expanding pharmaceutical monopoly protections. The proposed TPP measure under consideration, a 12-year period of data exclusivity protection, would allow brand-name companies to obtain an automatic monopoly on biologics even in the absence of patent protection.

During this period, access to cheaper versions of the drugs would be restricted, as governmental regulatory bodies would be prohibited from relying upon the brand-name company’s clinical trial data to approve biosimilars – more affordable versions of the high-cost drugs. While exclusivity is in force, biosimilar applicants would have to replicate costly, time-consuming clinical trials despite already-known outcomes. This would prevent many biosimilar groups from even seeking market approval, keeping their more affordable, life-saving drugs off of pharmacy shelves for years as pharmaceutical corporations accrue monopoly profits.

Although U.S. law currently requires 12 years of data exclusivity for biologics, the White House has repeatedly proposed reducing this period to tamp down spiraling costs. According to the White House budget for fiscal year 2014, shortening exclusivity to 7 years could save federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid more than $3 billion over the next ten years. But if Obama administration trade officials propose 12-year exclusivity for the TPP at the request of Big Pharma, the binding pact could lock into place pharmaceutical firms’ lengthy monopolies here at home, barring the administration’s proposed cost-cutting changes.

That’s right – Obama administration officials are contemplating TPP rules that would effectively scrap the administration’s own proposal to save billions in unnecessary healthcare costs.

Other TPP countries have been rejecting U.S. pressure to include data exclusivity and other pharmaceutical monopoly protections in the deal, given the large humanitarian cost and financial burden of delaying access to more affordable drugs.  In fact, no other TPP country allows a special data exclusivity protection period for the high-cost biologic drugs.

However, in addition to data exclusivity protection, U.S. trade officials are urging TPP countries to accept egregious measures that would lengthen and broaden patent rights and drug monopolies, stifle cost-cutting generic competition, and favor pharmaceutical companies in court.

Stronger drug monopolies would force consumers to pay high drug prices for longer and would have devastating humanitarian and financial consequences in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 100 million individuals fall into poverty due to catastrophic health payments each year. In developing countries including Vietnam, a TPP country, patients often have to pay 50 to 90 percent of pharmaceutical costs out-of-pocket, making medicines the second-highest household expenditure after food.

But this problem is not only a developing country issue.  In the United States, medical expenses account for 60% of bankruptcies.  And in three-fourths of those cases, the person even had health insurance. As AARP, AFSCME, the Consumers Union and others make clear in today's letter, we cannot afford to roll back cost-saving policies and lock in unaffordable healthcare costs via a “trade” deal.

As we strive to recover from an economic crisis, reduce the government deficit, and expand access to health care, it is imperative that our “trade” policy not undermine these goals.  How can the Obama administration continue pushing abroad a secretive trade pact designed by and for Big Pharma while pushing at home access to affordable medicines?

--Stephanie Rosenberg, Public Citizen's Global Access to Medicines program

November 05, 2013

Want to Weigh in on a Controversial “Trade” Deal? Please Pay $2000.

Surprise!  The second round of negotiations for the massive Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) won’t be happening in Washington, DC in December as planned.  It will be happening in six days.  In Belgium. 

That was the last-minute announcement in an email sent by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) at 9:40pm last night. 

But don’t worry.  If you are someone who is concerned about what the deal's proposed deregulatory terms could mean for the safety of your food, the cleanliness of your air, the stability of your economy, or the privacy of your data, you can still air such concerns with TAFTA negotiators. 

That is, so long as you can get yourself to Brussels by next week. 

USTR’s email yesterday invited “stakeholders” to a “briefing session” next Friday where “non-governmental organizations, consumer groups, trade unions, professional organizations, business and other civil society organizations will have the opportunity to exchange views with U.S. and EU chief negotiators.”  It just happens to be taking place on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. 

This may well be the most expensive “stakeholder engagement” opportunity presented by the Obama administration for one of its sweeping “trade” deals.  At current prices, the cheapest last-minute flight to “exchange views” with TAFTA negotiators in Brussels would set you back $1977. That may not be a problem for the approximately 600 corporate trade “advisors” who are already deeply involved in helping USTR craft TAFTA negotiating positions.  For the rest of us, it’s a bit like getting an email invitation to your friend’s destination wedding in Cancun a week before the ceremony (psst...I don’t really want you to come). 

Unfortunately, such barriers to public oversight have become all too common at USTR.  In an announcement USTR sent last month to notify press outlets of upcoming events, entitled “Press Week Ahead,” not a single event was actually open to the press.  The seven posted events ranged from closed-door Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations that threaten to drive up the cost of medicines, to a corporations-only discussion with USTR about a new pact with China that would empower Chinese firms to challenge U.S. domestic policies, to a private USTR meeting with the CEO of BMW.  All seven events were marked “Closed Press.” 

What do our trade negotiators have to hide?  If USTR actually wants to ensure that sweeping deals like TAFTA reflect the interests of U.S. consumers, why give them a week’s notice to fly to Brussels to express those interests?  Or is it possible that the plans being hatched for TAFTA, the TPP, and other pacts actually threaten the public interest, and that hiding this reality requires inaccessible negotiations, secretive texts, and “closed” events? 

It’s time to shine the light of public scrutiny on shady “trade” deals that implicate everything from job availability to GMO labels to Internet freedom.  The texts must be public.  The events must be open.  And the opportunities to engage must not require a $2000 plane ticket. 

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